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Former Weston Park owner Lord Bradford wages war on TripAdvisor

Staffordshire | Entertainment | Published:

He is the upper-crust foodie who has carved a career out of opening high class restaurants.

The Earl of Bradford has a four-decade-long reputation built on top-end catering for the world's elite – and he has never been afraid to speak out in defence of the industry he adores.

The former owner of Weston Park currently has TripAdvisor in his crosshairs, the multi-billion pound internet giant that he believes is guilty of a series of injustices against his profession.

Lord Bradford says the site, which enables people to post their own reviews of restaurants and hotels, is 'almost universally disliked' by people in the hospitality trade. The reason, he argues, is that TripAdvisor is always on the side of the reviewer and is never prepared to investigate unfairly hostile reviews or inaccurate ones.

"How can it be right that people can go on TripAdvisor, make up a name and write malicious or even made-up reviews about your restaurant?" Lord Bradford said. "And even when you can prove they are wrong, TripAdvisor does nothing about it."

Lord Bradford says he has been on the receiving end of some unfavourable reviews for his current venture, the swanky Porters restaurant in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. And donning his investigator's hat, he says he has proved beyond doubt that many of them were ill intentioned.

He cites a member of staff at a rival establishment who admitted that part of his job was to write a derogatory review of Porters every month. Other scams, he says, involve reviewers using multiple identities, or simply embellishing facts in order to leave a spiteful review.

He said: "The problem is that we are the fodder for reviews websites to make a lot of money, and policing the reviews seems to be the least of their concerns."

Lord Bradford makes a point of responding to all online criticism of his own restaurants, however mild. "We all make mistakes and I have no problem with people saying so if they are genuine," he said. "If someone is unhappy, we'd like to know why."

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But he is less accommodating when he or his staff are on the receiving end of what he deems to be unwarranted attack. For years he was a regular feature on TripAdvisor, conversing with reviewers and defending his businesses.

Then three years ago he was unceremoniously banned from posting messages to members of the public after some reviewers complained.

"We felt strongly that Mr Bradford was abusing the messaging function on our site," a spokesman for TripAdvisor said, adding: "As such we took firm action to ban him from using the tool in future."

The ban has since been lifted, allowing Lord Bradford to continue his frank and frequently blunt responses to criticism. In one message, Lord Bradford called a hostile reviewer a 'creep'. In another, he defends the owner of rival restaurant, arguing that she does not deserve 'idiotic reviewers like you'.

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Yet his posts are tame when compared to the vicious outbursts spewed forth by some online reviewers. The Earl's targeting of TripAdvisor is clearly not founded in the overall rating of Porters, which was based in Covent Garden for 35 years before moving to the new site two years ago. Indeed, the five-star reviews for it outnumber the one-star stinkers by 20 to one.

This is not his first clash with online review sites. After he exposed the sale of fake aristocratic titles in 2010, the Earl says he was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the owner of one of the companies involved.

And Lord Bradford, a former UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stafford, is not the first business owner to complain about malicious online reviews. In 2010 hundreds of hoteliers and restaurateurs threatened a group legal action against TripAdvisor, arguing that it needed to do more to police its reviews.

The Earl said the Metropolitan Police spent several months investigating and identified the culprit, but the Crown Prosecution Service did not prosecute.

As Viscount Newport, son of the 6th Earl of Bradford, he grew up knowing he was likely to take over the family's country pile, Weston Park, and its 11,000 acres on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border. After school at Harrow, he studied agriculture at Cambridge before returning home to open a restaurant.

But two years after opening Porters in 1979, his father died and he inherited the earldom, the estate — and a bill for £8m in death duties which would prove insurmountable. Lord Bradford struck a deal with the Government and handed his stately home to a charitable trust and he has no further connection with the family seat.

Meanwhile he has vowed to carry on fighting the scourge of malicious online reviews.

A spokesman for TripAdvisor insisted the firm is 'the industry leader in review fraud detection', adding: "We are confident in our systems and processes, and we work tirelessly to ensure we stay one step ahead of the fraudsters."

But Lord Bradford disagrees, and has called for online review sites to appoint an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints. "We just want fairness and transparency," he said.

By Peter Madeley

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